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How Vikings Connect the Movies Gladiator and Braveheart

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180 A.D. Germania

  Every film buff remembers the opening scene of the 2000 film, Gladiator.  As an icy darkness falls, a horde of barbarians emerge from the forbidding forest of northern Europe.  They are big men, long-haired and long-bearded armed with wooden shields and iron weapons.  At their helm is a giant, clad in a bear skin and armed with a great axe.  He shouts defiance at the armies of Rome, his eyes ablaze under heavy brows.  But as the warriors charge, the brave Roman general, Maximus Decimus Meridius unleashes the Roman war machine against them and utterly defeats them using cavalry, artillery, and strategy.  The barbarians retreat and Rome is saved – for a time.

      While the image of Ridley Scott’s barbarians is very close to the popular imagination of Vikings, the warriors depicted in Gladiator lived more than 600 years before the Viking Age began. However, they were the direct ancestors of the Vikings. These tribes threatened the Pax Romana and would have been from a large confederation of Germanic tribes called the Marcomanni.  And as the movie showed, they were only narrowly defeated in 180 A.D. by the great emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius.

While every bit as terrifying as the foes depicted in the movie, these Marcomanni and other Germanic tribes had a well-developed culture that included many elements of modern democracy.  They spoke a dialect of the same language family of their cousins in ancient Scandinavia, and they used the runes of the Elder Futhark, as the ancestors of the Vikings did.  The ancient geographer, Tacitus, was struck that the chief god of the northern tribes was a wondering god who sought wisdom and arcane secrets, often while in disguise.  Tacitus equated this god with Mercury, but it was actually Odin that he was describing.  Tacitus also mentions Hercules, Mars, and Isis, referring to Thor, Tyr, and Freya, respectively.  Tacitus also remarked that the Germani of the far north loved their ships, which – like a primitive version of the later dragon ships – had “a prow on both ends”.  The later Norse not only shared much of the culture of the earlier Germanic tribes, but modern studies also confirm these ties through DNA.

Fifth Century Rome

While the Roman Empire would go on to use Germanic tribes both as mercenaries and enlisted soldiers for centuries to come, wave after wave of Germanic tribes pushing southward would ultimately be one of the major factors in the western empire’s implosion.  By the fifth century, the Marcomanni confederation had been absorbed and replaced by the Alamanni (loosely meaning, the “All People” and the source of modern Germany’s name in several languages).  The Alamanni were joined by the Sueves, the horse master Alani, and the fearsome Vandals (who were originally from Scandinavia) along the borders of the Germanic border in the fateful year, 406.  Under pressure from the Huns to the east, and desperate for the prosperity of Rome, this massive group of people walked across the frozen Rhine and invaded Rome in the dead of winter. 

      Around the same time, the Goths were rebelling against their former Roman masters in the heart of the empire.  Like the Vandals, these Goths were originally from Scandinavia (Gotland, Sweden still bears their name) and they showed distinctly Viking-like characteristics whenever they came in contact with water.  But it was a land force of Goths, escaped Roman slaves, and other tribes that sacked Rome in 410.  The western empire would fold in 476, creating the patchwork of petty kingdoms that the Vikings took advantage of a few centuries later.

Eighth Century Northern Europe

  In 793, the perfection of the dragon ship along with a perfect storm of other factors led to the dawn of the Viking Age.  Adventurers from Scandinavia set forth in exponentially-increasing numbers to raid, trade, explore, colonize, and conquer.  One of the first places they came to was the territories now known as Scotland, where they found an ideal home for “sea kings” among the warring Picts and Scotts (learn more about the Vikings in Scotland here).  Ironically, it was the entrance of the Vikings onto this chaotic scene that helped unite the Picts and Scotts against them, thus leading to the unification of Scotland.

Thirteenth Century Scotland

  In Scotland, the Celtic and Norse cultures blended, and as the Viking Age receded into history (around the eleventh century) these divergent tribes all thought of themselves as Scotts.  Even today, Scotland has some of the highest amount of Viking Age Norse DNA of anywhere outside of Scandinavia.  This fused culture would go on to carry the same Viking ideals of bravery, independence, and fierce love of freedom.  These ideals were tested in the years 1297-1305, when the people of Scotland rallied behind the hero, William Wallace, to rebel against England’s greatest warrior king, Edward I “Longshanks”.

    This epic memory of this terrible war was revived in the 1995 blockbuster, Braveheart.  History students love to argue over the accuracy of the details of this movie, with its Scotts in kilts and blue warpaint, incorrect timelines and its incredible assertions of a few major historical figures.  Regardless, the film does credit to the ethos and courage of the Scottish men and women who stood up to the superpower of their day.

  Far from being the fur-clad men who stepped out of the dark woods in the beginning of Gladiator, the warriors in Braveheart show some of the tactics and war skill that made the Vikings so successful, such as in scenes where Wallace’s Scotts use spear formations against cavalry charges, or use feints and quick maneuvering to lure larger forces into ambushes.  Ivar the Boneless and his Great Heathen Army used many of these same tactics in the conquest of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms centuries before.  But of all the visuals and storylines in the movie, the one that resonates the most with the Viking ethos is William Wallace’s courage unto death in the name of freedom.

      So yes, the characters of Gladiator and Braveheart are not Vikings, but they do represent both the ancestors and the descendants of Vikings. They show where these people came from and where they went.  Movies should not be confused with history, but movies and other forms of historical fiction can bring us closer to history by arousing our curiosity and giving us an emotional taste of what some of these times might have felt like.  For millions of fans, these two films did just that, and many history buffs can trace some of their current enthusiasm to films like that. 

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Image Sources

The movie Gladiator (2000)
Fall of Rome painting "Destruction" : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Course_of_Empire_(paintings)
Oseberg Ship : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oseberg_Ship
The movie Braveheart (1995)

References

  1. Krzewińska, Maja et al. “Mitochondrial DNA Variation in the Viking Age Population of Norway.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 370.1660 (2015): 20130384. PMC. Web. 10 Aug. 2018.
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4275891/ 
  2. Brownworth, L. The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings.Crux Publishing, Ltd. United Kingdom. 2014
  3. Kenneth MacAlpin (Cináed mac Ailpín) Scotland’s History. BBC. 2014. http://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/history/articles/kenneth_macalpin/
  4. Norwich, J. J. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. New York. 1989.

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